J.D. Vance perfectly diagnosed the problem with Donald Trump way back in 2016

J.D. Vance speaks at the FreedomWorks Forum for Ohio's Republican Senate Candidates on March 18, 2022 in Columbus, Ohio.

CNN  — 

Give J.D. Vance this: He gets the whole Donald Trump thing.

In fact, back in 2016, before he was running for US Senate as a Trump acolyte, the Ohio Republican offered a pitch-perfect analysis of why the billionaire businessman had caught on with Republican voters.

“I think most people are not very ideological, and Trump, while I find him loathsome, touches a legitimate nerve,” Vance wrote in a private Facebook message to Josh McLaurin, a friend from Yale Law School. McLaurin, now a Democratic state representative in Georgia, posted the message from 2016 on his Twitter feed and shared more of his past interaction with Vance with Vice News. (Vance’s campaign dismissed the message as “old news.”)

“But I’m not surprised by Trump’s rise, and I think the entire party has only itself to blame,” Vance wrote in the message. “We are, whether we like it or not, the party of lower-income, lower-education white people, and I have been saying for a long time that we need to offer those people SOMETHING (and hell, maybe even expand our appeal to working-class black people in the process) or a demagogue would. We are now at that point. Trump is the fruit of the party’s collective neglect.”

Yes! That is (almost) exactly right!

Let’s take Vance’s point about what the Republican coalition looks like right now. Here are a few takeaways from the 2016 presidential election exit poll:

* Trump won White voters over Hillary Clinton by 20 points.

* Trump won 66% among White voters with no college degree.

* Trump won only two income groups: Those whose income was between $50,000 and $99,999 and those who income was between $100,000 and $199,000. He also tied with Clinton among those whose income was $250,000 or more.

And here’s how that compares to his performance in the 2020 election:

* Trump won White voters over Joe Biden by 17 points.

* Trump won 67% among White voters with no college degree.

* Trump won one income bracket: Those making between $100,000 and $199,000. He also tied with Biden among those making at least $200,000.

So, Vance is exactly right about Republicans being dominant among White voters without a college degree. It’s harder to make a clear determination on his contention that Republicans are also the party of lower-income White voters because the exit poll doesn’t break out income by race. But the available data suggests that Trump voters skewed slightly wealthier than Vance’s contention.

Now for the second – and more critical – part of Vance’s diagnosis of Trump’s appeal: That the billionaire businessman gave Republican voters something to believe in.

At the core of Trump’s appeal – then and now – was an aspirational argument that he not-so-subtly made to voters. What he was (and is) selling was the notion that he had succeeded in life and that by electing him, you too could be rich and famous. “Trump capitalized on the power of the Trump brand, which people associate with and aspire to luxury, wealth and celebrity,” Northwestern marketing professor Tim Calkins told The Washington Post in November 2016.

During his term in office, Trump, again and again, sought to paint he and his supporters as the richest, smartest and the best. Here’s one riff from the campaign trail in 2018:

“I meet these people they call them ‘the elite.’ These people. I look at them, I say, ‘That’s elite?’ We got more money, we got more brains, we got better houses, apartments, we got nicer boats, we’re smarter than they are, and they say they’re elite? We’re the elite. You’re the elite. We’re the elite.”

“So I said the other day, let’s keep calling these people—and let’s face it, they’ve been stone-cold losers, the elite, the elite—so let them keep calling themselves the elite,” he continued. “But we’re going to call ourselves—and remember you are indeed, you work harder, but you are indeed smarter than them—let’s call ourselves from now on the super-elite. We’re the super-elite.”

Trump, as Vance rightly notes, filled a void for lots and lots of voters. He gave them something to believe in – and, maybe even more importantly, someone to be against (“the elites”).

Vance’s past comments make his transformation into a Trump-endorsed candidate for Senate all the more remarkable – and transparent. Vance understands the roots of Trump and Trumpism. And the hucksterism that sits at the heart of it.